The Resurgence of the Deep Lying Playmaker-Part 2

Read Part 1 Here


FC Schalke and their two year long search for the right one:
It was tiresome, boring, but a whole lot effective. FC Schalke’s season in 2009/10 did not entertain many, even Schalke fans would be excused for not being entirely joyful watching their team scratch their way to a multitude of 1-0 victories. It was always defence first, counter attack second; the season ended with a surprise second place finish (after coming eighth the previous season) and a joint top defence record alongside champions Bayern Munich, 31 goals conceded. 

What was interesting about Schalke’s 4-3-3 formation was the complete lack of need of a deep playmaker, instead, manager Felix Magath opted to use two pure defensive midfielders in the form of young Joel Matip, who has since then seen himself move to a central midfield position, and Christopher Moritz before the transfer of Peer Kluge saw him move alongside Matip. This was supplemented with Ivan Rakitic acquiring the forward most role in midfield. The formation was similar to Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan who won many of their latter matches in the Champions League by defending deep and counter attacking with precision and quality through Sneijder, Eto’o and Milito. The team was basically divided into a bank of 6 defenders and 4 attackers, though the two wingers were especially hard working therefore making it a virtual 8 man defensive wall for the opposition to breach. Of course, with such a defensive attitude, you need quality attackers to be able to consistently score and quality attackers Schalke had in Rakitic, winger Jefferson Farfan and poacher Kevin Kuranyi.

The oncoming summer transfer window saw a transfer that would swiftly bring about a couple of changes which would turn Schalke’s strength into its underlying weakness for much of the season. The transfer of Raul was seen as a major victory for a club of Schalke’s stature, while being a firm big club in Germany, they barely forged recognition outside of the central European country. Therefore, signing a player with the history of Raul was seen as a fantastic achievement. But what the transfer also brought was a huge Spanish ego to satisfy and while Raul is an extremely modest player at heart, Schalke were surely not going to run the risk of making their star advertiser and their ticket to the European market unhappy and risk him leaving as soon as he came.
Fixing Raul into the working formation of last season was not difficult for Magath, given his technical abilities and intelligence on and off the ball, he was on paper the perfect striker to play slightly in behind a main target man like the Dutchman Klass Jan Huntelaar (brought in to replace the Russia bound Kuranyi). That meant that Raul would stand in direct competition with one of Schalke’s best players of the previous season, Ivan Rakitic but no matter how will the young Croat played, there was always going to be one winner in that battle.
Since Raul was now in firm position of the role ‘in the hole’ behind the striker, Magath’s decision was how to fit one of his star players. Rakitic was never one of the most hard working midfielders and therefore a winger position did not suite him well since Magath loved to have players willing to bust their lung to get up and down the pitch (Farfan, Edu, Schmidtz). The one position where Magath did see a fit for Rakitic was as one of the two deeper midfielders thereby adding the dimension of proper passing midfielder in defensive midfield. What Magath had not anticipated was the sheer divide between the defensive ability of Rakitic and what was required from a player in that position. The result was a complete catastrophe for the Royal Blues who lost their first four matches conceding nine goals. The theme continued throughout the first half of the season with Schalke ending the autumn period on 10th place, the 17th game would prove to be the last for Rakitic who, through his poor performances in his new position and disenchantment of life in Germany, was allowed to leave for the La Liga with Sevilla FC.

Much the same has continued this season with the newest player to be pulled back into defensive midfield being one of the young stars of Germany, Lewis Holtby, who just returned from Mainz following a tremendous season playing as a winger or in behind the striker. Once again the manager, this time Ralf Rangnick who took over after Felix Magath was sacked mid way into the second half of the season, saw the passing ability of Holtby and decided to try out the youngster in a deeper position in order to have a better technical presence since Raul’s performances of last season saw merit in him keeping his position in the first team in Holtby’s more natural position. While not being nearly as good as he was last season. Holtby’s performances have been better than that of Rakitic and therefore present a bit of hope for Schalke that their search for the prefect deep playmaker might end here.
Bastian Schweinsteiger vs Toni Kroos and its defensive significance for Bayern Munich:

Bastian Schweinsteiger is a named mentioned many times in this article already. One of the best central midfielders in the world, he presents the total midfielder. Another example of an attacking midfielder used to fill the deep playmaker slot, Schweinsteiger has excelled in the role and has grown into a midfield few others could compete with in terms of his completeness. His abilities as an attacker were well known to the public due to his performances for Germany as a winger in the 2006 World Cup and 2008 European Championships but what Schweinsteiger developed during his first year as a deep playmaker was his defensive game; though it can be argued that Schweinsteiger has always had the defensive sense to be able to play in the middle, it was in his own words that he said during his early days that he would rather help his side not concede a goal than score one.
While Bayern Munich have been reaping the rewards of coach Louis Van Gaal’s decision to make the surprise decision to move Schweinsteiger into the center of midfield, the club have struggled to find a suitable replacement for given Schweinsteiger’s importance to the side, it is paramount that they have someone to fill his boots in case of unavailability.  Toni Kroos is one player who has been used regularly as either back-up to Schweinsteiger or even playing alongside him on occasions, as was the case last season. Kroos has always been known as an attacking midfielder, from his days of early prominence winning the Golden Ball at the 2007 U-17 World Cup to his breakthrough season on loan at Bayer Levekusen playing mostly as a left winger or behind the striker. His strength was his fantastic passing ability, therefore, a move to the center of midfield would seem logical given the world trend.
His move into central midfield wasn’t a success, his first season was largely frustrating with some poor performances putting his future at the club in doubt. With the change of manager at the end of the 2010-11 season came a new hope for Toni Kroos as he would be reunited with his coach at Leverkusen, Jupp Heynkes. It wasn’t a surprise to see Jupp immediately reinstate Kroos into an attacking midfield role and the form of one of Germany’s best youngsters subsequently went up. Bayern Munich’s form was tremendous at the start of the season with the form of Kroos and Schwiensteiger being largely responsible for it. Sadly, Schweinsteiger sustained a broken collarbone during Bayern Munich’s clash with Napoli, which ruled him out till the end of the first half of the Bundesliga season.
Immediately, Bayern Munich once again found themselves with the question as to who to replace Schweinsteiger with. Kroos’ form and relative experience playing in Schweinsteiger’s position meant that he would be the most logical choice and thus that was the case. Though the form of Bayern Munich had not deterred to a large extent (they have maintained their place at the top of the table till the mid season break), there has been one large negative consequence from the injury of Schweinsteiger, defensive strength.
Well documented was the amazing feat of the Bayern Munich side to go 1147 minutes in all competitions without conceding. Much of the praise was heaped upon the new goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer. Logically, that would seem the case given he was the biggest signing for Bayern Munich during the summer and was thought to bring defensive solidarity to a Bayern Munich side who were criminally conceding goals during the previous season. The clean sheet run was ended by an own goal in a Champions League match vs Napoli and though Bayern conceded two more (being down a man after 28 minutes) against Hannover in their next match they managed to keep another clean sheet against Nuremberg and were looking comfortable once again against Napoli (3-0 after the first half) before Schweinsteiger sustained his injury.
Bayern Munich’s defensive record prior to Schweinsteiger’s injury was 4 goals conceded in 16 and 1 half matches while their record since has been 9 goals 6 and 1 half matches. The rest of the defence has largely been untouched so the vast difference in the two records can be put down to the absence of Schweinsteiger. The lack of defensive ability of Kroos, also illustrated in the previous season during his poor performances in the center of midfield, has effected Bayern Munich’s ability to hold the opposition and is yet another example of the importance of being able defensively holds for a deep playmaker, an importance many clubs ignore when choosing who to play in that now popular position.
How is the future trend going to look?

It’s happened throughout history. Whenever a new position adopts itself in order to give a team an advantage, managers immediately look for quick fix solutions by bringing in existing players and hoping for them to adopt the role to the effect of gaining that advantage. What we should now see are young players emerging who have been groomed to play the specific position of a deep playmaker, they have already been a couple of them to catch the eye of the public. Jack Wilshere of Arsenal broke through into the London side last season and caused waves of praise for his performances in the middle of the park. Class on the ball mixed with tenacity off it, Wilshere showed the perfect mix of the offensive and defensive ability needed to occupy the role so coveted. A little west of Arsenal, another young player was beginning to make waves. Josh McEachran of Chelsea is another player billed by many to be a future Premier League and England star in the center of midfield, maybe even alongside Wilshere though the similarity in both their games might see a recurrence of the Gerrard-Lampard problem that plagued England throughout the previous decade.
It’s difficult to suggest whether the use of the deep lying playmaker will continue after the next 4-5 years. The dominance of Barcelona on the European stage has emphasized the importance of being able to hold possession in the middle of the field and restricting your opponents from being able to attack by starving them of the ball. It was a tactic brought upon them by Johann Cryuff and after years and years of hard work implementing this philosophy upon its players and, most importantly, its youngsters at La Masia, the dividends are paying off in astronomical numbers. Another team now reaping the benefits of a change of philosophy towards a more technical attacking game are Germany who, after the horrors of Euro 2000, decided to concentrate more on the upbringing of the young players in the Bundesliga clubs. Right now, Germany are widely regarded as the only national team capable of toppling the World and European champion Spanish side, who have greatly benefited from the current Barcelona team, and their football is said to be the most exciting. So maybe until the success of Barcelona, Spain and teams who favour the tactic of playing for possession and stress the importance of having a deep playmaker is stopped, we will continue to see the rise and further development of the deep playmaker.   

Hasan Ejaz
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